Science and Storytelling

Adam Gopnik, one of my favorite writers at the New Yorker, recently published online a negative review of Jonathan Gottschall’s new book, The Storytelling Animal. I haven’t read Gottschall’s book and I don’t know anything more about it than what Gopnik reveals, so I won’t defend it. However, though characteristically insightful and well written, Gopnik makes a few troubling points that I thought I’d comment on.

The crux of Gottschall’s book seems to be that storytelling makes people more empathetic and thus was selected for in human evolution. Gopnik writes,

Gottschall’s encouraging thesis is that human beings are natural storytellers—that they can’t help telling stories, and that they turn things that aren’t really stories into stories because they like narratives so much. Everything—faith, science, love—needs a story for people to find it plausible. No story, no sale.

He continues,

But this claim, itself hardly momentous, then opens onto something sadly like a forced march of the platitudes: We all like stories. When we don’t have a story we make one up—that’s why the juxtapositions of film editing work. People usually like stories to have ‘morals’ at the end. Religions are so successful because they tell moralish stories, though, to be sure, some of their stories are nice and some are not nice at all. Different people like different kinds of morals in their stories. Hitler loved the heroic stories of Wagner, for instance. That was too bad. (‘The musical stories that Hitler most loved did not make him a better person,’ Gottschall writes.) On the other hand, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an influential story about the evils of slavery. That was good.

For Gopnik, the theory is merely boring. He treats the claim that humans are natural storytellers as a shallow and uninteresting claim. The statement may be obvious, but the explanation of why this should be would is far from clear, given the quantity of time and resources that people throw being entertained. To him, the interesting question is what makes certain stories good and others bad. He writes,

The interesting questions about stories, which have, as they say, excited the interests of readers for millennia, are not about what makes a taste for them “universal,” but what makes the good ones so different from the dull ones, and whether the good ones really make us better people, or just make us people who happen to have heard a good story.

Questions about those small differences seem not to have occurred to Gottschall. There is not a single reference in Gottschall’s book to such students of the mechanics of storytelling as William Empson, Samuel Johnson, Lionel Trilling, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, or Randall Jarrell, all of whom brooded long and hard upon stories and their subjects.

However, why should we care even about the good stories. Isolating which foods are good and bad for us tells us little about why it is that we must eat. The questions are of course related, but there is certainly a distinction.

I’d argue that the better way to approach our appetite for stories would be a cognitive approach rather than plunging straight into evolution. Without understanding the mechanisms by which we understand and enjoy stories, we will have little chance of understanding how or why that propensity might have evolved. I don’t doubt that stories can contribute to the development of one’s empathy—few media are comparable for forcing one to appreciate the personal experiences and emotions of others. Who can fail to feel that they have a greater understanding of humanity after reading some of the great authors? However, I doubt that this fact has any great evolutionary or developmental significance. It seems to me more likely that the idea that people have of what stories should be like has been shaped throughout history, perhaps unintentionally, by humans to facilitate the cultivation of empathy.

The stories told in ancient texts, in fact, are conspicuously devoid of most psychological content. The story of Abraham and Isaac, for example, is written in chillingly dispassionate prose, and most of the characters in the ancient epics are emotionally shallow. There are so many other ways to develop one’s empathic sense that seems unlikely that stories (fictional stories, at least) have had any disproportionate role. In fact, an empathic sense—a highly developed empathic sense, in fact, when compared to any other species—seems to be a prerequisite to understanding stories. A more likely scenario is that the types of stories that we develop and tell have a cultural evolutionary history that led up to their present forms in which large swaths of story text can be devoted to explicating a single emotional churn.

What Gopnik doubts, as do I, is that stories make people and societies more ethical. He writes,

Surely if there were any truth in the notion that reading fiction greatly increased our capacity for empathy then college English departments, which have by far the densest concentration of fiction readers in human history, would be legendary for their absence of back-stabbing, competitive ill-will, factional rage, and egocentric self-promoters; they’d be the one place where disputes are most often quickly and amiably resolved by mutual empathetic engagement. It is rare to see a thesis actually falsified as it is being articulated.

Yes, true, but that relies on the conflation that Gopnik—and apparently Gottschall, as well, in his book—make that empathy, or the ability to identify and simulate the experiences and emotions of another, will necessarily lead to more ethical behavior. He writes,

Do entertaining stories make us more ethical? ‘The only way to find out is to do the science,’ Gottschall says, reasonably enough, and then announces that ‘the constant firing of our neurons in response to fictional stimuli strengthens and refines the neural pathways that lead to skillful navigation of life’s problems’ and that the studies show that therefore people who read a lot of novels have better social and empathetic abilities, are more skillful navigators, than those who don’t.

Being a more adept empathetic social navigator has little bearing on how ethical one’s behavior will be. Skills in social navigation only make it more likely that one will get away with unethical behavior.

Halfway through the essay, Gopnik counters an imaginary “science-minded” dissenter who he has accuse him of siding with the gang of literary types against the science types that try to make evolutionary arguments about art. Not true, he counters, and describes how fascinating he found Robin Dunbar’s argument in Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, in which he argues that language, in part, evolved as a social surrogate for grooming, which Dunbar argues was a means of displaying and communicating social alliances. The appeal of this thesis to Gopnik is its novelty, its startling strangeness. True or not, this feature is exactly what makes a good story, he argues, whether it be fictional tale or a scientific theory. Needless to say, Gottschall’s argument does not measure up.

[T]he story that everything is, one way or another, give or take a turn or two, really sort of like a story? … It is the shock good stories offer to our expectations, not some sop they offer to our pieties, that makes tales tally, and makes comtes count. The story that tells us only that we like all kinds of stories lacks that excitement, that exclusionary power, which is the only thing that makes us want to hear stories at all.

Yes, exciting and strange scientific theories are much more interesting than dull scientific theories. That much is almost a tautology. However, the enterprise of science is fundamentally different from that of fiction, and the hair-raising nature of many scientific theories are often no better than a distraction. One must only remember the embarrassing fiasco a few months ago about the Narcissus-kraken proposed by the paleontologist Mark McMenamin. Wouldn’t it be cool if there really was a giant sea monster fashioning self-portraits in the Triassic? Hell yeah it would! There was such little evidence, however, that the journalists who pounced all over the story hardly had to mention how trivial the “evidence” was (ichthyosaur vertebrae that happened to be laid out in what happened to look like the sucker pads on squid tentacles). Strange and exciting subjects indeed make interesting stories, but in science, those features should be sidelined as long as possible so that we can find out, to the best of our abilities, what is true before we’re swayed by what we want to be true.


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